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Dispatch | Securing the Summit City: Reflections from a Tense Tehran

by CORRESPONDENT

11 Sep 2012 17:36Comments
26319_356.jpg"Something is different and it doesn't feel very nice."

[ dispatch ] For anyone who might have traversed Tehran on Monday, August 27, it would have been easy to conclude that the government's security forces were arranging to face anti-regime protests similar to those in 2009 and 2011.

The previous week, commanders of Iran's military and elite police units had announced their resolve to impose tight security in Tehran ahead of the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which had convened on Sunday the 26th. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, told the Fars News Agency, "Responsibility for the preservation of safety at the NAM summit has fallen upon the army of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

In the days leading up to the summit, the presence of the military dominated the city's mood. In the mountainous Velenjak neighborhood of northwest Tehran, I met with a 60-year-old man and his 25-year-old daughter. "It is full of police here," she said. "Last night, ten roadblocks were set up, and at the end of every street were positioned four police officers." As far as she was concerned, the government's behavior was "natural."

A friend of the father's joined our conversation. He said he "completely" recalled the autumn of 1997 when, under then President Mohammad Khatami, Tehran played host to the 18th Conference of the Organization of Islamic Countries. I asked him to compare the government's security measures then to those for the NAM summit. "Then, Sadegh Kharazi was tasked with organizing security surrounding the conference," he said. "The first thing he did was to establish dialogue with residents of neighborhoods near where the conference was being held by promising to keep disturbances at a minimum. The positions taken today greatly contrast with those in 1997. Then, none of the soldiers had loaded weapons. Today, they all have a Colt or a Kalashnikov. Then, roadblocks and inspections were conducted in neighborhoods adjacent to the conference. Today, forces are scattered throughout the entire city. "

I chatted with a newspaper stand vendor who was reading the reformist-leaning Shargh newspaper. Was he troubled by the security measures? "I sense that it's an important summit, so safety is necessary," he said. "You see, places like New York City host events sometimes on a monthly basis and so they are prepared." But Tehran, he said, hosts an event the scale of the NAM summit only about once a decade, "and so these measures are more distinguishable."

On Tuesday, as the major influx of foreign heads of state and government attending the conference took place, security garrisons were established around the capital. On Enghelab Avenue, opposite the University of Tehran, I participated in a forthright exchange with a 29-year-old undergraduate studying sociology, Marzieh. "I don't like the military atmosphere of the city," she said. "I live in east Tehran. Our neighborhood is very far from the summit, but is nevertheless swarming with soldiers and police officers." She took a phone call and hurried off after a conclusive observation: "They've intentionally created an atmosphere to flex their muscles." Perhaps she had in mind statements from government officials such as Deputy State Police Commander Ahmad Reza Radan, who told Mehr News Agency that the forces under his control would be "extremely vigilant."

In a tiny studio in west Tehran, I spoke to an opposition activist who wanted to be identified only by a pseudonym, Mehdi. Discussing the security measures, he said, "They really aren't kidding around. Even small merchant stands have been told to close, and enforcement officers are everywhere."

A 17-year-old girl, Atefeh, relaxing in the shade under the trees of Jamshidieh Park, said, "Everywhere is deserted. Something is different and it doesn't feel very nice."

Later, I walk toward south Tehran, whose residents according to stereotype are predominately pro-government enthusiasts. At the Jaberi Mosque on Pirouzi Street, a man with a heavy Tehrani accent who said his name was Jacob, remarked, "Listen up, son. Write in your newspaper that when people don't have bread, Mr. Ahmadinejad has decided to spend millions on his guests. To a poor, old workingman like me, five days without work is a week of lost income." The government had declared a holiday in Tehran for the duration of the summit, Sunday through Friday.

Another man in the neighborhood declared of the NAM conference, "I'm against wasting money on this, but if the summit is hosted well, the Islamic Republic's flag will rise proudly."

On Friday, Tehran was a city of ghosts, void and tranquil. The monthly allocation of subsidized fuel was increased by eight gallons in the week running up to the summit. Analysts widely interpreted this as an effort by the Ahmadinejad administration to sway residents to vacation outside the capital during the summit.

I asked Mehdi, the political activist, if he is unhappy. "We don't mind going on vacation," he said. "I haven't seen any dissatisfaction. But they apparently have difficulty controlling the city, and are afraid of chaos."

Mehdi has posters on his wall depicting luminaries of American and European cinema and literature -- Martin Scorsese, Samuel Beckett. There are also images of political figures from Iranian history such as Prime Ministers Mohammad Mosaddegh and Mehdi Bazargan, and Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani. The most prominent picture of all is one of Mir Hossein Mousavi.

The Green Movement leader has been under house arrest since February of last year with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard; former parliament speaker and reformist presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi is similarly under detention. On August 23, three days before the start of the summit, Mousavi was brought to a Tehran hospital to receive treatment for clogged arteries. News of his condition swiftly spread via social media, and many Iranian Facebook users changed their profile pictures to that of the opposition leader.

I asked Mehdi if it was conceivable for members of the Green Movement to take advantage of the international focus on Tehran and the NAM summit to protest against the political situation and, specifically, the detentions of Mousavi, Rahnavard, and Karroubi. Speaking of the security forces, he said, "When foreign dignitaries are visiting, they will not fire upon the crowd and this is an opportunity to prepare for protests. However, other factors must line up for protests to occur, and these days we just don't have this. It's possible that no blood will be spilt, but they will most likely arrest and jail lots of people. This reduces the people's motivation."

The Green Path of Hope Council released a statement to coincide with the opening of the summit that called on citizens to chant "Allah-o akbar" from their rooftops on Wednesday and Thursday at 10 p.m. This means of expressing popular disapproval with Iran's rulers traces back to the 1979 Revolution, and more recently the 2009 protests. On Wednesday, no chants were reported, but the following night, in various quarters, the voices of the opposition were once again heard.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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